Wood may be one of the oldest and most commonplace art materials, long used in African, Pre-Columbian, and Oceanic artwork to create groundbreaking forms, but it’s full of surprises. Even the artist Ursula von Rydingsvard, who has been creating monumental sculptures from cedar wood for more than 40 years, is frequently caught off guard by its vagaries. “Often, as I build my work, the original image changes—it is not unusual for the wood to [refuse to] yield to something I am asking of it,” she tells me. “Every time I see a truckload of my cedar beams, I give myself a talking-to: ‘Okay Ursula, enough is enough, surely there must be some other material that you can work with.’”
Through their powerful, large-scale public artworks, and elegant, minimal, or playful forms, artists like von Rydingsvard, Martin Puryear, and Courtney Smith have positioned wood as a viable contemporary material for sculpture, one that transcends its associations with mere craft. Wood has also become easier to manipulate in recent years, due to the availability of digital tools for design and fabrication. CAD programs, CNC machines, and laser cutters have expanded the possibilities of shaping wood, making it more versatile and reducing the need for hard-earned manual skill.
However, the most innovative artists working with wood today aren’t necessarily taking advantage of the newest technology. Some, like Christopher Kurtz, are still honing traditional woodcraft techniques, and others, like Alison Elizabeth Taylor, are reinvigorating methods of sculpting wood that date back to the Renaissance. This new generation continues to push the limits of wood, employing a dizzying variety of conceptual and technical approaches. Below, six artists describe their strong relationships to the material, despite (and in some cases, because of) its challenges.
Christopher Kurtz, Singularity, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
Kurtz, who once worked as an assistant in Martin Puryear’s studio, shares the older artist’s commitment to manual skill. “The human hand is still infinitely more complex than any multi axis CNC machine— so I continue to work wood by hand—not to be nostalgic, but because the result is much more nuanced and spontaneous for me,” Kurtz explains. “The process I use would look very familiar to the craftsperson of 100 years ago.”
Kurtz’s sculptures look impossible, like models of yet unproven astrological theories. They are often confoundingly slender, the wood either ending in tiny points or curling around itself like loose ribbon. His furniture line, originally started in 2008 to support his art, is sturdier, but employs the same attentive craftsmanship.
Kurtz enjoys working within the restrictions of the medium—for example, responding to the way wood swells or shrinks in response to changes in its environment, or selecting the most adept wood species for a particular job. Inspired by wood’s challenges as much as by its malleability, he notes: “I like bumping up against the rules and seeing how far I can challenge the conventions as a way to find compelling forms.”
Rachel Beach, Q, Demi, Feste, 2014-16. Photo by Steve Farmer. Courtesy of the artist.
Rachel Beach, Bloom, Echo, 2016. Photo by Steve Farmer. Courtesy of the artist.
Beach first learned woodworking by building painting panels, and later by working construction. Her interest flows from a practical connection to the material. “I like wood’s factual, elemental relationship to building and manual labor,” she says. “It’s historical and human in scale; one human can build one thing out of wood.”
Beach’s work often references the ways and means of architecture, and she’s particularly interested in transitional elements in the built environment—“seams that transition space to plane, edges that frame an experience or vista, the place the floor meets the wall, or where a hallway opens to a room,” she explains. The references in her current work are broad-ranging, from ancient armor and shields to symbolic languages such as hieroglyphs, marine flags, and typography.
In Beach’s human-scaled, geometric sculptures, you’ll find angles, patterns, and colors reminiscent of Memphis furniture, and incised shapes that suggest minimalist totem poles or modern skyscrapers. For Beach, this affinity with the built environment is also conceptual: “In addition to the more obvious spatial, structural, and material relationships my work has to architecture, it also [combines] the commonplace with the magical.”
MANGLE is a partnership between Colombian artists María Paula Alvarez and Diego Fernando Alvarez, who met as woodworking students at the Fundación Escuela de Artes y Oficios (School of Arts and Crafts) in Santo Domingo, and later married. The group takes its name from the Latin classification for mangrove tree, a plant—known for its twisty, tangled shapes—that reflects their interest in complex forms in the natural world.
“I think their diversity distinguishes them,” explains Dara Metz of Magnan Metz, the collective’s New York gallery. For Metz, MANGLE’s cross-disciplinary approach is part of their appeal. “They create both usable objects and conceptual objects without thought to what category they might be considered,” she explains.
Although the duo is trained in carpentry, many of MANGLE’s sculptures aren’t immediately recognizable as woodcraft. They create the illusion that wood can behave just like textiles, rubber, or even living plants. Among their recent subjects are tangled extension cords, ferns rendered in wood and concrete, and delicate plywood lattices inspired by the ironwork of Bogotá.
Julian Watts, Blob Vases, 2017. Photo by Julian Watts. Courtesy of the artist.
Watts didn’t pick up a chisel or operate a lathe in art school—at the University of Oregon, he focused on conceptual and installation art. But after graduation, he took a job in a woodshop, and something clicked. “I quickly became obsessed with wood,” Watts says. “As a living material, it incorporates the organic, irregular forms I have always been drawn to.”
Watts’s sculptures look vaguely libidinal, like housewares from an erotic dream. His spoons have impossibly long handles, and his bowls have unexpected apertures. His recent “blob vases” are perforated with holes and look less like vessels than fairytale birdhouses. Subverting the assumption that wood is inherently functional and sturdy, his work is playful and impractical.
Although Watts uses wood in unusual ways, his sculptures employ the techniques of traditional folk wood carving, and he’s compelled by this connection with the past: “I like the idea that my strange, very non-traditional-looking woodcarvings follow an almost identical process that has been part of human expression for as long as we’ve been around.”
“Originally, woodworking seemed very off-limits, because of the bias against craft in contemporary art,” Taylor tells me. Not to mention that the field is still heavily male, and very gendered. “I made my teachers nervous when I got near a table saw, and men in hardware stores are still trying to explain wood glue to me,” she says.
Clearly Taylor isn’t one to mince words or take the popular route. She’s best known for marquetry, the technique of applying thin pieces of wood to a surface in order to form a pattern or image. Taylor builds her flat, figurative compositions and installations by cutting and fitting pieces of wood veneer together like pieces in a jigsaw puzzle. “I like making flat images out of three-dimensional materials,” she says. “The grain of wood is like having a tube of paint that makes texture within form.”
In contrast to marquetry’s Renaissance origins, Taylor’s work shows contemporary, often quotidian scenes, such as those depicting pleasure-seekers at casino machines or posing with whalebone cocktails. Taylor’s forthcoming show, opening at James Cohan Gallery next month, will feature marquetry hybrids, which combine wood with paint and photography.
Bhuvanesh Gowda, Born from Each Other, 2016. Courtesy of the artist.
Gowda credits his interest in wood to his childhood. Raised on the slopes of Western Ghats, a mountain range in southern India, Gowda has a knowledgeable connection to the material by way of his community. “Almost everyone knew how to handle wooden implements and build wooden structures,” he explains. Even wooden tools and “wooden ploughs,” he says, had strong aesthetic forms.
Gowda’s recent work investigates the relationship between new developments in physics and Eastern philosophy. Some of his wooden elements are finely carved, others left in their original state. Some are burned black, while others are painted, suggesting a confluence of opposing forces or a psychological narrative. Antarmukhi I (2016), which means introverted or inward-facing, is a carved sculpture that extends both above and below its steel plinth. It’s rough above the plinth, but shaped into careful ridges below.
Gowda’s primary material is salvaged wood, either purchased second-hand or sent to him by friends. This isn’t so much a conceptual choice, as an ethical one, he explains: “The use of salvaged wood lies in my responsibility towards the environment as a human.”